Buying Guitars Online - Setting Realistic Expectations

Buying Guitars Online – Setting Realistic Expectations

Last Updated: Aug 28, 2018

Negative guitar reviews like this one are all over the internet--written by people who don't know what to expect of a guitar ordered online.

Negative guitar reviews like this one are all over the internet–written by people who know little (or nothing) about guitars.

One thing that really burns me up is seeing negative reviews left for guitars ordered online–for things that aren’t actually problems or, in some cases, are completely normal.

When putting together my recent post on really great beginner electric guitars, I read a lot of negative guitar reviews on Amazon that were totally unfounded.

That’s when a realization hit me: many people (especially beginners) have absolutely no idea what to expect of a guitar ordered online. No surprise, really, but the problem is that they’re leaving bad reviews on good guitars that usually only need some basic adjustments after the rigors of shipping.



Buying Guitars Online: The Reality

In a perfect world, a guitar that you order online would arrive at your doorstep perfectly setup, in-tune and ready-to-play. The strings would be brand new and stretched properly, neck relief would be just right, string height would be reasonable, and the guitar would be free of any excessive fret buzz.

Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world.

The harsh reality is that guitars ordered online rarely arrive perfectly setup. If you’re extremely lucky, the guitar will simply be a bit out of tune when it arrives. However, it’s far more likely that it’ll be out-of-tune, the strings may be uncomfortably high, or so low that they’re buzzing against the frets. If it’s an electric with a floating tremolo, I can almost guarantee the tremolo won’t be balanced properly. You may even have a few loose screws here and there.

What You’ll Learn in This Article

If you’re planning to buy a guitar online–especially if you’re a beginner or otherwise know very little about guitars–here’s what I hope to teach you with this article:

  • To better judge negative guitar reviews on the guitar you’re interested in ordering. Recognize which negative ratings are legit complaints, and which ones are just silly and can be ignored (and why).
  • To have realistic expectations of a guitar that’s been shipped to you. You usually need to budget an extra $40 – $60 to have a guitar set up properly after it arrives.
  • To not leave an unnecessarily bad review on a guitar you ordered online, thereby dissuading others from purchasing a perfectly good guitar.

Online Guitar Reviews: Real Examples

Using real Amazon reviews, let’s look at 6 examples of negative guitar reviews. I’ll post a screenshot of the review, and then provide my verdict (whether it’s bogus and should be ignored, or legit and should be taken seriously). I’ll also explain why I’ve decided whether it’s bogus or legit.

Example #1:

A negative guitar review on Amazon.com

My Response: Bogus!

String buzz–or fret buzz–is rarely a genuine defect in a guitar ordered online. It can often be fixed (or minimized) with a few simple tweaks, if you know what you’re doing. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll have to take it to someone for a basic setup which will run you $40 – $60.

Even IF the guitar was setup prior to shipping (which they rarely are) the rigors of shipping, moving to a different climate, etc. can knock things out-of-whack. Giving a guitar a 1-star rating for having string buzz right off the truck is a shame, because it probably isn’t the guitar’s fault. Most guitars need a full setup regardless of whether they’ve been ordered online or bought off the wall at a guitar store.

Oh, and in case you didn’t already know: some string buzz is normal, depending on a combination of factors such as how hard you hit the string, string gauge, string brand, string height, and more.

You can ignore a negative review like this one.

Example #2:

A negative guitar review on Amazon.com

My Response: Bogus!

Ugh! Here we go again. Of course you had to take it to a local shop for a setup. As I said above, a guitar that’s been through the rigors of shipping will usually need to be setup properly to sound and play its best. The real tragedy here is that this reviewer didn’t elaborate and tell us how the guitar played after the setup. Did it play beautifully and turn out to be a good guitar after all? Or, was it unfixable–thereby warranting this sad, 1-star review being here forever?

Since we’ll never know, you can ignore this negative review.

Example #3:

A negative guitar review on Amazon.com

My Response: Bogus!

A 1-star review because the high E string broke? Are you kidding me? This is an unfortunate example of what happens when someone who knows absolutely nothing about guitars leaves an online review. Strings break. Heck, they sometimes break when they’re brand new and being installed for the first time. It’s maddening, but welcome to the life of a guitarist.

And don’t even get me started with the comment about how the guitar “… sounds very bad.” The reviewer obviously knows nothing about guitars, but apparently they’re able to objectively rate its tonal quality. Oh, and I’m sure her husband’s playing ability had nothing to do with the guitar sounding bad.

Ignore reviews like this one when deciding whether to buy a guitar online.

Example #4:

A negative guitar review on Amazon.com

My Response: Legit!

Not only are these legit complaints, I would’ve given this guitar an even lower rating and sent it back. There’s no good excuse for a guitar to arrive with a poor paint job and flat, uncrowned frets. Frets should never be left flat on top–that’s just lazy, negligent fretwork. It’s also possible this is actually a used guitar, and a previous owner tried to do their own “fret job.”

It’s one thing for a new guitar to need a basic setup, but you shouldn’t have to pay hundreds of dollars for expensive fretwork just to get the guitar playable. Take advantage of Amazon’s generous return policy and send that sucker back to the seller in exchange for another one–one that only needs a basic setup.

Since this is a legit complaint, carefully scrutinize other reviews left on this guitar and see if it seems to be a common theme.

Example #5:

 

A negative guitar review on Amazon.com

My Response: Legit!

An acoustic guitar bridge coming unglued from the body

Unacceptable. This is a guitar that actually deserves a negative review

A bridge coming unglued on a brand new guitar is unacceptable, and deserving of a negative review. Oh sure, there are other factors that can cause this, such as rough shipping or improper humidity in your home. However, in a brand new guitar it’s often the result of negligence (or bad quality assurance) during manufacturing. A bridge that’s properly glued-and-dried should be able to withstand being jostled around during shipping as well as some normal weather changes. A bridge coming unglued should only happen with extreme abuse, extreme old-age, or long-term exposure to weather extremes.

If you see a review about the bridge coming unglued, look carefully to see if others have experienced the same thing. If not, and the guitar also has a good number of positive reviews, you may be safe to proceed with buying that model. Obviously, if you see others with the same issue, perhaps it’s a guitar you should pass up.

Example #6:

A negative guitar review on Amazon.com review

My Response: Kinda Legit

Is that actual blood on this guitar string?

Whoa! Is that actual blood on this guitar string?

Okay, this is just disgusting… assuming there’s actually blood on that low E string (I’m skeptical). However, I’m calling this one only “kinda legit” because this is a case where it’s actually the seller that deserves the 1-star review, not the guitar. Cosmetic issues like nicks, dents, and stains are all good reasons to send the guitar back to the seller, but they’re not an indication of a low quality guitar. These are the result of careless handling, not actual manufacturing or functional defects. This reviewer obviously received a guitar that was used (and abused).

In this case, I wouldn’t necessarily avoid the guitar, I’d avoid the seller. See if you can find this model being sold by someone else with a better track record. Oh, and don’t forget: leave a negative review on the seller, not the guitar.

Bad Guitar vs. Bad Seller vs. Bad Shipper

So, the big distinction I want you to be able to make when buying a guitar online is the difference between a bad guitar and a bad seller. Also, let’s not forget the shipping company’s responsibility in all this. I mean, have you seen what they do to packages?

It’s not unusual for a guitar shipped across the country, sometimes to a completely different climate, to need some basic adjustments upon arrival. Then, after it has acclimated for awhile, it may need adjustments again. Welcome to the joys of owning a musical instrument made mostly of wood and glue. So, if your new mail-ordered guitar has some string buzz, action that’s too high, or won’t seem to stay in tune, it’s not necessarily defective, and doesn’t necessarily deserve a negative online review.

Sure, it would be great if your new axe was ready to rock right out of the box, but that’s extremely rare. It does happen, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.

Let me explain why.

Setting Realistic Expectations

I don’t love it, and I’m not defending it, but as I’ve said throughout this article you’re usually going to need to budget an extra $40 – $60 to have a guitar that you’ve ordered online setup properly. Unless, of course, you know someone who’ll do it for free.

If you’re ordering the guitar as a gift for a friend or loved one, don’t let them be the one to take the guitar out of the box for the very first time. I’ve read too many online reviews where the reviewer bought the guitar as a gift, and the recipient was the one who discovered that the guitar buzzed, wouldn’t stay in tune, etc. This can be an embarrassing situation for you, the gift-giver.

Instead, order the guitar at least a month in advance and have it inspected and setup prior to giving it as a gift. If it’s one of those “starter packs,” just have them repack the guitar after they’ve completed the setup. Your recipient will never know it was opened, and they’ll unbox a guitar that’s in-tune (or pretty close) and ready to rock.

But wait, aren’t guitars set up properly at the factory?

When a mass produced guitar comes off the assembly line it’ll get a very quick quality inspection and maybe some basic adjustments to get it “in the ballpark” of playability before it’s shipped to a retailer (music stores, online retailers, etc). This is done by a final QA (Quality Assurance) person, and each person can have dozens and dozens of guitars lined up and waiting for them every morning. So, out of necessity, this is not a thorough, detailed setup. It’s fast and furious.

Now, this varies by manufacturer, of course. Some of the more reputable manufacturers give each guitar more attention before they’re sent to retailers, and some high-end and all custom builders do indeed give every guitar an in-depth QA inspection and precision setup before they’re shipped.

However, if you’re ordering a cheap mass-produced guitar, you can rest assured that the factory probably spent no more than 5 – 10 minutes giving it a couple basic adjustments, if any at all.

Okay, but what about the retailer? Don’t THEY set it up before shipping it to me?

Don’t count on it, but again, it depends. Some places are better about this than others, but most of the big online retailers move so many guitars that they simply don’t have the manpower to give every guitar they sell a good setup before it goes out to you.

But then, there’s shipping

Even if the seller did give your guitar a thorough setup before shipping it to you, well, there’s everything that can happen to it during shipping. Getting jostled around and thrown is one thing. However, let’s not forget about climate changes. If you live in a dramatically different climate than where the guitar is coming from, it’s probably going to need some adjustment after it arrives–even if you let it acclimate for 1-2 days before opening the case (which I recommend).

Final Thoughts

If you’re planning to buy a guitar online, I hope you now have a better sense of how to judge the negative reviews you see. Some are downright bogus, and should be ignored. This is especially true on Amazon, which naturally has a bigger audience of shoppers who have little-to-no knowledge of guitars.

Lastly, when your guitar arrives, I hope you now have a better sense of what to expect–what’s normal and just needs a little TLC–and what’s truly a fault of the guitar (in which case, you should send it back and leave a negative review). Also, if it’s not truly the gutiar’s fault, be sure you leave your negative review for the SELLER and either don’t leave a review on the guitar itself or, if you do, thoroughly explain that it was the seller (or shipper’s) fault, and not the guitar itself.

Question:

Have you ever ordered a guitar online? If so, I’d love to hear how it went. Let me know in the comments section down below.

9 replies
  1. William
    William says:

    I agree. I have bought only 3 guitars on -line. The first 2 were from a place called The Music Farm . They did arrive in one piece yet the packing could have been much better. One was a AMI parlor that came in a tan gig big yet the box was some sort of thing made up of parts of boxes taped together , I was amazed since it was in a gig bag it made in one piece, this was 2005. The second was a Seagull grand in a hard shell case yet by the time UPS dropped it off at work the box was falling apart 2006.
    Then I bought a Epiphone EL-00 Pro from musicians friend I ordered via phone yet they didn’t tell me the case was on back order . Through many emails and calls I finally got in touch with someone who got the case and didn’t charge me for it even though it took almost 2 months to get here. They did pack the guitar well , it was in the factory box and that was in a padded box. The case came in a padded box.

    The thing is shipping always concerns me . No matter if you get it in a store like guitar center they use Musicians Friend and every thing comes out of some wear house in Ohio and it is not climate controlled . Yet since Epiphone and Fender and many others have most guitars made in Indonesia or China They have a very long trip either in a cargo ship or plane . Then they end up in another ware house who sells on-line then make the trip from there to you. There may be more stops in between.

    I was considering a Fender CP-60S which is a parlor guitar and seems nice and gets good reviews and it’s $199 then you need a case so add $40 for a Gator gig bag or $89 for hopefully a hard shell case that fits. Fender has a case for the CP-140SE and it’s included $400 yet I don’t need electronics and Fender does not sell that case by itself they offer a universal case which by the inside measurements they post it’s far to large . I thought I’d deal with Sweetwater since they do say their ware house in climate controlled and each guitar is checked out yet only guitars above $300 go through their 50 point inspection . It’s made in Indonesia .

    I do review what I purchase and so far nothing arrived broken . If it did because it was not packed well then it’s the dealer if it was well packed then it’s the shipping Co. If it’s the guitar that arrives not damaged yet with factory defects (more than not setup ) then it’s the dealer who sold it and had not at least checked it over .

    Reply
  2. william Jahnkow
    william Jahnkow says:

    I thought of buying a Fender CP-60S which is a parlor guitar that is $199. I’ve only read a few reviews and all were good. It’s the place I want to order from. Last time was Musicians Friend got an EL-00Pro . It got here setup well which was a surprise.
    I am considering Sweetwater , they do specify guitars under $300 do not get the 50 point inspection .

    Then of course who has it in stock . I can’t say my experience with MF was all that great . It took a few emails and call’s because I was not told the case was on back order and took over a month to arrive . In the end I finally got one person at MF to take the time to makes things right. They do a great job packing yet a guitar should not be shipped tuned to pitch , this only can create damage during shipping due to the rough handling.
    In talking to sweetwater they do keep guitars in a controlled environment /ware house at least this is what I was told. If true this at least helps once they get a guitar yet does not during shipping . Even if one buys from a big box like GC or Sam A it’s still shipped . GC uses MF and in not in stock it comes from the same huge ware house in Ohio and I read nothing about controlled environment . Point is shipping cannot be avoided even if it is in stock in the store.

    More than anything else it’s the shipping that scares me most and second to this is how the instrument was kept before hand . I live in southern Calif and most everything is shipped from the east or Midwest and with Godin Canada . Then Epiphone and most Fender are made in Indonesia or China , here it crosses an ocean and who knows how many ware houses it sits and how many shipments are actually made before it gets to my door, let alone different climates and temps including the cargo area in a plane or the heat/cold of a UPS truck .

    I have a rather long story about Godins lifetime warranty yet to long to post here. Lets just say if the model is still available yet has changed in construction method well the lifetime warranty no longer applies simply because they no longer make the neck that fits even though externally looks the same .

    William

    Reply
  3. Frank Delaware
    Frank Delaware says:

    It has always been a dream of mine to buy a guitar, but I wanted to make sure I knew how. I love that you say to actually read reviews to make sure they are serious and not jokes. I know that I would love to also hear people playing the guitar to get a feel for the sound.

    Reply
    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      Hi Frank. Reviews are a double-edged sword, for sure. They can be hugely helpful, but only if you know which ones to pay attention to. Otherwise they can easily overwhelm and confuse you. If you need help buying your first guitar, I’d love to help you if I can. Feel free to join my mailing list and send me an email–I personally read and respond to all emails, and often work one-on-one with people on these types of things… completely free. If you think you’d like to sign up, you can find the signup form at the top of my Start Here page. Drop me an email and let’s find you the perfect first axe!

      Reply
  4. Dan
    Dan says:

    Really great information here, beginners need to understand the perfect world does not exist. There are some great deals out there though. I also like CL and have got many great used guitars there and you get to try them before buying…

    Keep the articles coming. You are doing a great service for others…

    Reply
  5. Dan
    Dan says:

    I have ordered 5 guitars on-line this year. Two through Amazon. I love working on guitars as well as playing them. So, for me, my expectations were very low, buying in the $100 range. I wanted to see just how cheep a decent guitar could be made. They were both great & needed a minimal set-up. I left good reviews for both of them, stating how they arrived and what I did to set them up, to my liking. I got two others from rondo and they were also in need of a little TLC. I had one issue with the FR locking nut, but after contacting the seller, they shipped me a new one for free. The last one I ordered on-line was from SW. I did pay more then $1000 for it w/case and confess, my expectations were much higher. I looked it over very close and did find a few minor, but irritating flaws. I contacted them and there standard answer seems to be send it back and they will check it out and replace if necessary. One of the problems was unfinished sanding on the binding. not a big deal by it self, but then I complained about the pickup switch, witch rattled loudly.

    They asked if I could hear it while plugged into an amp. Well, I did read some reviews of others having this problem B4 buying it, but still ordered it hoping for the best. Also, I have another guitar (same brand, with a great switch in it. Got it used and it may have been replace before) Still, not a big deal for me to replace it. (none of the $100 guitars had a bad switch!) The last thing was, on an expensive(for me) guitar, using a plastic nut. To me, that just sounds like bad quality.(even though quite common these days), but that is not the worst part! They cut the nut slots to deep, making the bridge have to be quite high to avoid buzz. I know, why did I not just send it back? Read too many horror stories and the main body and neck on this one is great. In the end I just wanted them to send me a new nut and they did and it was a raw bone nut. I liked the idea of seeing the same guitar you are buying before hand and it did look as good as it did in their pictures, but I am not sure about there so called inspection. This guitar I have not left any review info for, other then this mention of it here and I know I did not specify this or any of the others I purchased. My point is they can make great guitars for very little money, these days, but expect to find cost in making them some ware on even the best of them…

    Reply
    • Guitar Answer Guy
      Guitar Answer Guy says:

      Hi Dan, thanks for sharing all that info. I’m really surprised to hear that a guitar from Sweetwater came to you with issues. I’ve never ordered a guitar from them, but always had great experiences with other gear I’ve bought there. The one time I had an issue, it was FedEx’s fault (shipping damage), and they took care of it. I’ve always been curious about their “Detailed 55 Point Inspection” on guitars. My guess is that occasionally a few things get missed for one reason or another.

      When it comes to budget guitars (guitars in the $100 range), it really isn’t as much an issue of quality as it is consistency. In other words, you could order two identical guitars that cost… say… $99, and one will be amazing and the other might totally suck and need to be returned. Cheap guitars tend to skimp mostly on the Quality Control side of things, and they save time/money by not bothering to set them up or inspect them properly. However, the basic product methods and woods used are pretty decent quality, given how far modern production methods have come.

      Believe it or not, the nut is the one area of a guitar that most manufacturers tend to neglect or just get plain wrong. I have no idea why. Maybe because properly shaping a nut and nut slots does take a little finesse and skill. Hard to say, but I’ve definitely noticed that many nuts (even on higher-priced guitars) tend to be less than optimal on brand new guitars.

      Reply
      • Dan
        Dan says:

        Yes, I do agree. Just pointing out no matter what you pay for something you can have problems and thinking because you pay more for it does not guaranty perfection…

        Reply

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